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Taking a Look at Other Nations

In the United Kingdom, the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) system specifies requirements for proficiency that vary widely across types of occupations and over levels within occupations. [1] It is a modular system that recognizes workplace learning and competence based on evidence of performance at the workplace. The NVQ system takes skill gradations in each defined field into account and allows workers to gain documentation for each level, whether attained with one employer or many. The ultimate goal is that employers place a value on attaining a qualification level, giving workers an incentive to learn on the job. Although this system has not worked as effectively as planned (Eraut 2001), the NVQ approach offers one example of how certifying the attainment of skills can provide the basis for measuring the heterogeneity of skills.

One effort to develop occupational or industry standards in the U.S.—the National Skill Standards Board (NSSB)—failed to develop relevant, rigorous, portable, and well-recognized skill standards to guide training and provide reliable signals to worker and employers. However, occupation-specific skills standards exist in the U.S. through state-level licensing and certification. These forms of occupation qualifications are expanding. Today, about one in five workers requires a state license to practice his or her occupation, up from less than 5 % in the early 1950s (Kleiner 2006). Much of this increase has resulted from rapid growth in traditionally licensed occupations such as physicians, dentists, and attorneys. But the number of licensing laws has been increasing as well. In the U.S., licensing rules vary widely across states, with many states regulating occupations as varied as alarm contractor, auctioneer, manicurist, and massage therapists. Although licenses ostensibly offer some quality assurance to consumers among all providers, Kleiner finds evidence of licensure playing more of a role in raising prices than assuring quality.

School-based and dual work-based/school-based systems try to ensure that occupational qualifications are widely accepted by employers. In primarily school-based programs, decisions about what is necessary to prepare young people for particular careers are often made by the faculty of postsecondary institutions. Often, training colleges—such as U.S. community colleges and for-profit schools—decide themselves (sometimes in consultation with potential employers) what constitutes qualifications in quite detailed occupations, such as domestic air conditioner and furnace installer, medical receptionist, and medical coder. [2] Other standards directly involve employers and government entities.

Occupational standards are prerequisites for the functioning of apprenticeship programs, which involve workand school-based learning leading to a credential documenting the individual's occupational qualifications. This issue has been tackled abroad in a variety of ways. Australia has developed the national Training Package (collections of competency standards gathered into qualifications) for all industry areas, while previously qualifications were only available in a limited range of occupations and industries (Smith 2012). The development of Training Packages is one activity of the nation's ten national Industry Skills Councils. In Canada, the Interprovincial Standards Red Seal Program helps develop occupational standards that allow for effective harmonization of apprenticeship training and assessment in each province and territory (Miller 2012). The Red Seal program's standards incorporate essential skills (reading, document use, writing, numeracy, oral communication, thinking, digital technology, and lifelong learning), common occupational skills (that apply to a small range of occupations), and specific occupational skills. [3] In England, the Sector Skills Councils and their employers design the content of each apprenticeship using the design principles of a national Apprenticeship Blueprint (Miller 2012). The secretary of state appoints and Sector Skills Councils commission an Issuing Authority to promulgate standards for specific apprenticeships. As of 2012, there were 200 operating apprenticeship frameworks and an additional 118 under development. At the same time, employers have considerable flexibility in implementing their apprenticeship programs. France uses Apprenticeship Training Centers to help design and deliver the classroom-based components of apprenticeship, with skill standards often developed by Professional Consultative Committees (Dif 2012). They operate under frameworks established by the National Commission for Vocational Qualifications.

In Switzerland, the Federal Office for Professional Education and Technology, together with cantons, employers, trade associations, and unions, participate in framing the occupational standards for about 250 occupations (Hoeckel et al. 2009). The canton vocational education programs implement and supervise the vocational schools, career guidance, and inspection of participating companies and industry training centers. Professional organizations develop qualifications and exams and help develop apprenticeship places. Occupational standards in Germany are determined primarily by the “social partners,” including government, employer, and employee representatives (Hoeckel and Schwartz 2009). The chambers of commerce advise participating companies, register apprenticeship contracts, examine the suitability of training firms and trainers, and set up and grade final exams.

The content of skill requirements in apprenticeships includes academic courses and structured work-based training. In each field, the requirements are to complete the coursework in a satisfactory manner and demonstrate the apprentice's ability to master a range of tasks. In some systems, there are a set of general tasks that apply to a family of occupations (say, metalworking) and tasks that apply to a specific occupation (say, tool mechanics or metal construction and shipbuilding). While the tasks vary widely across occupations, all involve the application of concepts and academic competencies.

The coverage of occupational standards for apprenticeship extends well beyond the traditional construction crafts. In the U.K., for example, specific apprenticeships are available within such broad categories as business, administration and law; arts, media, and publishing; health and public services; retail and commercial enterprise; and information technology and communication. Common apprenticeships in Switzerland include information technology specialists, commercial employees, pharmacy assistants, and doctor's assistants. German standards cover over 300 occupations, including lawyer's assistants, bank staff workers, industrial mechanics, industrial managers, retail workers, commercial sales, and computer networking. While much of the training is specific to the occupation, nearly all fields learn skills in closely related occupations. For example, apprentices in industrial management learn accounting, procurement, production planning, staffing, and logistics.

The ability to raise the quality of jobs and workers across occupations appears to help achieve relatively low levels of wage inequality. The enhanced occupational skills and productivity result in increased wages for workers who in other societies have low or average wages. As of the mid-1990s, the evidence showed wage inequality was especially low in countries that used apprenticeships extensively, including Austria, Germany, and Switzerland (Martins and Pereira 2004).

  • [1] For an overview on NVQ and other qualification systems in the United Kingdom, see material provided by the Qualifications and Learning Authority at
  • [2] Curricula for certificates in these occupations appear in the catalog for the Kentucky technical college system. See
  • [3] See the documents linked at This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ?tid=51 for examples.
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